I’m George Walker for WFIU Arts
Nail biting IU playwriting grad student Aaron Ricciardi was a comfortable weekly New York City salon patron. Then he read a New York Times exposé of salons’ gross labor abuses. The persons serving him were overworked, underpaid and often working with dangerous chemicals. Liberals worked the social media calling for progressive reform and change. The actual workers and owners took to the streets picketing the New York Times and opposing government interference. Laws about wages and working conditions were passed. Inspections and enforcement followed. For some at the top of the game, though they opposed the interference and saw the appeal of a conservative “hands off approach,” it was a good thing. For others, already just getting by, it was disaster.
Riccardi describes himself as a liberal political junkie. He’s also a playwright who reacts to his awareness through his art. Last August his Premiere Musical at IU was set in the 2011 Arab Spring with parallel stories of an indie rock duo in America and a pair of Iranian students in Tehran. Nice Nails is his own creatively imagined and dramatized story of one of the salons that with a vibrant life of its own, was still “just getting by.”
Ariel and Maurice with their daughter Jasmine are from South Korea. Through hard work and real love for their adopted country they have worked to actually open and run a business. Neither parent is fully comfortable with English, their salon sign says “Nice Nail” and over the register, a crude sign say “Cash Onlly” with two “l’ in only, but their patrotism and determination are never in doubt. Heping Yang was very effective as the dogged mother Ariel. Longfei Zhao hit just the right notes as the business’s manager Maurice. Ninako Donville was the charmingly sympathetic and much more Americanized daughter. She’s broken away from the family’s Korean church and advocating some improvements in the business.
Adrienne Embry plays Nomfundo, a dignified South African working as a cook, seeking to better herself by learning the nail business in order to send money back home for her daughter’s care.
Helene is a long time regular patron played by Meaghan Deiter. She’s a rich liberal Long Island Jewess, a bit of a caricature of a conscientious liberal with some serious blind spots. Although she’s been coming for years, she has never seen the real life of the salon below the level of its conscientiously friendly customer service. When she travels on cruises Helene brings the staff useless trinkets from the ports of call and at other visits she brings handbags with the phrase…”Better that I give them to you than to GoodWill.”
Aimes Dobbins plays Helene’s grand-daughter, now a boyish grand-son Jacob. It’s conversations between Jacob and Jasmine that are the tentative Romeo and Juliett moments of Nice Nails and it’s connections from Jacob’s past life that are part of the play’s tragedy.
Taiia Santia nicely managed playing five of the salon’s clients and the government inspector. My two favorites were the self-centered cell phone shouting Alyssa, totally ignoring the people working on her hands and feet and the thoughtfully English Charlotte agreeing with Ariel that English is difficult and sharing a laugh over the nail salon’s polish and the European Polish.
Nice Nails, directed by Jonathan Michaelsen is presented in separate scenes with black out in between. Saturday night the first scenes were punctuated by laughter. After the first three or four, there was applause for each of the next three. Then at about an hour into the hundred minute show, the laughter and the applause disappeared as the depth of the situation grew. It was a fascinating example of how theatre and an audience can work together on an entertaining, involving and moving experience.
Aaron Riccardi’s Nice Nails at IU Well-Metz Theatre plays through April 7th with evening performances at 7:30 and a matinee on Saturday at two.
You can find this review and an interview with the playwright and set designer Chris Mueller at WFIU.ORG/ARTS
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker.